• Alexander Burkart

People Are My Drug Of Choice: A Chat With Chuck Vollman



If you’re tired of cliché success quotes, do some groundwork, get out there, and meet someone like Chuck Vollman for coffee. Everything about this man makes you want to ask what’s the secret? How do you get to your 80s and still have the swag of a young gun in his 30s?

As soon as he was old enough to work, Chuck got his sign-painter card to work as a journeyman for his father. Yes, sign-painters are exactly what they sounds like. They paint signs. However, sign-painting as a profession had a bit of a negative connotation, one where the general consensus was that you were a drunk and your work was only worth what was needed to get the job done and nothing further. There was no premium service to be offered, no real skill or art perceived by the average business man when hiring a sign-painter, and thus the ceiling for success in such a profession was quite low.


This didn’t sit well with Chuck. He knew the value in his work and wanted to be recognized for it. So he did what all great pirates, dreamers, and innovators do. He changed the game. By rebranding himself as a lettering artist, he was able to enhance the perception of his work in the eyes of prospective clients, adding a more intimate sense of meaning to his work. He didn’t just paint signs or sell billboards, he looked to understand your company, the needs of your audience, and connect the two through design. This outlook on advertising and design was a key element in the foundation that made his company, Vollman Advertising, such a success.

What follow are the answers to that question I asked earlier; how do you get to your 80s and still walk around kicking ass and taking names like a day hasn’t even gone by?

Be the brand, but don’t forget to have fun. Everything Chuck has done in his career and personal life has been anchored in the philosophy that whatever you do, make sure you’d be willing to sign your name to it. With your reputation on the line, you’ll be pushed to put your best foot forward. So be the brand, and make it a great brand. Hold yourself accountable and push for a better you, but in that pursuit, don’t forget that child-like wonderment and fun of being alive. As Sixto Rodriguez would say, “You’re either alive or you’re not.” Don’t forget that. Find the things that bring the most joy and happiness in your life, and make time for them. It’s not a race, it’s a journey, and there’s no real sense in making money if you can’t enjoy the things that truly make you happy.

Stop asking why me, and start asking Why Not Me? I asked Chuck where he got it, or where that hunger to always push the boundaries of his own capabilities came from. He didn’t answer right away, as realizing your own origin story isn’t always the easiest thing to nail down. However, after a short reflection, he came to understand it was all about the experience he had growing up. He saw others who had achieved success financially, socially, and in life in general, and started asking how he could achieve the same. He didn’t bother with the thought that it was unattainable or that only select people, families, or professions were meant to make it out on top. He just kept pushing forward till he made it, setting bigger, more hairy and audacious goals time and time again.

Every stranger comes with a new opportunity. Chuck’s drug of choice is people. This drug isn’t reserved for the extroverts of the world either. Instead, all you need is an ounce of curiosity and the courage to act on it. If you see someone sitting alone at the bar, or the guy playing solitaire at that new board-game café, give them the opportunity to join your group or start up a great conversation. Think about it as leaving each place you walk into better than when you arrived. Even little gestures like getting to know your baristas at your local coffee shop or sharing a smile with your bank’s tellers can make all the difference in your day and theirs.

Do what works, fight for what’s right, and never give up. It’s scary as all hell, but when you are faced with a problem that has no obvious solution, you have to create one from scratch. For some of you, this will prompt you to retreat back to a more comfortable place where you can lean on the rules and follow an already paved path. However, if you ever expect to be better, you have to trail blaze. The thing that separates the ones who do and the one’s who do not, is an overwhelming will to never give up. You might starve for a few years, but the choice to tough it out, fight, and never give up until you have what you know to be yours, is all on you.

"Make everyday an adventure." - Chuck, the Billboard Guy